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For the past four decades, Nicholas Maxwell has been arguing that a revolution is needed in the aims and methods of science and scholarship -- a shift from the quest for knowledge to a quest for wisdom. In What's Wrong with Science? (1976), Maxwell argued that science needs to acknowledge problematic assumptions about its own values and politics. In From Knowledge to Wisdom (1984) Maxwell distinguished two kinds of inquiry -- knowledge-inquiry and wisdom-inquiry. According to Maxwell, the key intellectual task of wisdom-inquiry is to articulate problems of living that need to be solved and to explore different options for addressing them. In his latest book How Universities can help Create a Wiser World (2014), Maxwell clarifies the distinction between these two modes of knowledge as follows:
It is tempting to think that, whereas knowledge-inquiry is wholly objective, factual, free of value assumptions and politics, wisdom-inquiry by contrast is burdened with value and political assumptions and commitments … But this is a false contrast ... Knowledge-inquiry makes value and political assumptions too, in its priorities of research, in what it deems to be of value to develop knowledge about, and in deciding to whom, to what bodies, new knowledge is to be delivered, and for what purposes. The big difference between the two kinds of inquiry is not, then, that one is free of values and politics while the other is not. It is, rather, that the value and political assumptions of knowledge-inquiry are denied, repressed, and are therefore irrational, and likely to be all the more dogmatically upheld as a result. Knowledge-inquiry, unable to criticize or challenge the values and political assumptions of the society in which it is set (because of the official idea it seeks objective knowledge of truth) is all the more likely to reflect merely the value and political assumptions of the status quo -- the social milieu in which it exists (p.115).
Maxwell recognises that his critique of traditional knowledge-inquiry (and claims that knowledge can be obtained that is 'value-free' or 'objective') has much in common with postmodernist critiques and with the Continental tradition in philosophy more broadly. As Simon Critchley has pointed out, the Continental tradition tends to diagnose modernity as in the grip of various crises or pathologies (including psychological ones) in which techno-science is deeply implicated. The extent to which scholars will agree or disagree with Maxwell's characterization of the weaknesses of knowledge-inquiry will depend to some extent upon: a) how wedded they remain to the Enlightenment idea that knowledge can be 'objective', and b) the extent to which they agree with him that modernity is beset by crises, environmental or otherwise.
Maxwell has been fighting something of a lone battle to bring a wisdom agenda to centre-stage. And it is thus heartening to see his work being taken more seriously in recent years -- largely because the problems posed by climate change and other environmental challenges are increasingly obvious. Meanwhile, the plausibility of 'value-free' study in any discipline has been under long-term challenge from postmodernism and postcolonialism in the humanities and from the likes of Thomas Kuhn, Bruno Latour and David Bloor within philosophy of science. At the same time, universities are increasingly being challenged to explain how their work might 'impact' upon society. In the UK, research funding councils increasingly insist upon the need for scholars to explain the relevance of their research to the social realm outside the 'ivory tower'. While this pressure for scholarly impact can often be seen as an adjunct of the proliferation of neoliberal and narrowly profit-motivated agendas in education, it is also reminds us that scholarly claims to investigate 'knowledge for its own sake' are becoming increasingly untenable.
Maxwell recognizes that his critique of science and society might be regarded as 'old hat' (given, for example, the aforementioned similarities to postmodernism). However, Maxwell gives us something that postmodernism never did. For postmodernists, eager to critique totalizing notions of 'objectivity' and 'Truth' and over-arching metanarratives, the celebration of pluralism and diverse micro-narratives often appears as the endpoint of social critique. For Maxwell, on the other hand, drawing upon the full plurality of views may be necessary to wisdom scholarship but it is not sufficient because the ultimate aim of any such discussions should be wisdom i.e. 'the capacity to realize … what is of value in life, for oneself and others, wisdom thus including knowledge and technological know how but much else besides' (p.37). Of course, to some postmodernist critics, a 'wisdom' agenda sounds suspiciously like a return to yet another 'totalising discourse' or mental straightjacket. (Steve Fuller's essay in Leemon McHenry's Science and the Pursuit of Wisdom: Studies in the Philosophy of Nicholas Maxwell seems to harbour something of this suspicion). But that, I think, would be to forget that wisdom isn't simply a tradition, but a living capacity for moral discrimination, which aims to transcend not only folly, but banality as well.
The message of Maxwell's How Universities can Help Create a Wiser World is both urgent and wise. Maxwell discriminates the genuine merits and benefits of techno-scientific modernity as well as its pitfalls: 'modern science and technology have been of immense benefit to humanity. In countless ways, those of us fortunate to live in the wealthy, industrially advanced parts of the world have had our lives enriched beyond the wildest dreams of people living only a couple of centuries ago. Modern science has made possible the modern world' (p.3).
But while his overall thesis seems inarguable (to this reviewer, at least!) some of his arguments within the book are less persuasive. Consider, for example, Maxwell suggestion that in our efforts to address climate change 'We need to put the planet on a war footing' (p.106). Putting the world on 'a war footing' sounds worryingly like shorthand for some kind of top-down authoritarianism. Is this what Maxwell means? I hope not. But if not, why use the phrase? Meanwhile, Maxwell's unalloyed praise for the European Union -- 'We have here something like a model for what we should try to create worldwide' (p.72) -- seems idiosyncratic given the increasing disenchantment with the European project, as expressed by large swathes of its electorates.
A third, and deeper, problem arises I think when Maxwell explains to us what he believes is the most fundamental problem of scholarship. On the one hand he suggests that
'There needs to be a change in the idea as to where inquiry, at its most fundamental, is located. It is not esoteric theoretical physics, but rather the thinking we engage in as we seek to achieve what is of value in life'. (p.56)
Which seems a fair and sensible conclusion, wholly in keeping with Maxwell's overall thesis. However, later in the book Maxwell changes tack by suggesting instead that -
'the fundamental problem of both thought and life [is] How can the worlds of sentient life exist and best flourish embedded as they are in the [physical] universe?' (p.119).
What are we to make of this? They can't both be 'the fundamental problem of thought and life', can they? To shed a little more light on this question, it's worth noting that in Leemon McHenry's book about Maxwell's work, Maxwell noted that versions of these two problems have preoccupied him for most of his life's work:
'Problem 1: How can we understand our human world, embedded as it is within the physical universe, in such a way that justice is done both to the richness, meaning and value of human life on the one hand, and to what modern science tells us about the physical universe on the other hand?
Problem 2: What ought to be the overall aims and methods of science, and of academic inquiry more generally, granted that the basic task is to help humanity achieve what is of value -- a wiser, more civilized world -- by cooperatively rational means …? (p.3)'
One way we might read Maxwell's ambiguity about which of these two problems is most fundamental is to suggest that his critique of techno-science, albeit radical, may not be radical enough. There have been other illuminating critiques of science which suggest the assumptions Maxwell makes here are themselves implicated in the very environmental predicaments Maxwell seeks to address. For he seems to make two assumptions: a) that the scientific picture of nature and the physical universe is definitive and sufficient; and, b) that meaning and value are attributes of the human realm only, and are not attributes of nature and the more-than-human realm. But as Theodore Roszak has pointed out: 'If science tells us that the natural world is an alien, meaningless collection of inferior and unfeeling objects with which we have no ethical relationship, that has perilous consequences. In a time of environmental crisis, it is apt to lead to treating the world with an irresponsibility we can ill afford' (Roszak, p.17). Meanwhile, numerous environmental thinkers have suggested that the path to long-term sustainability and genuine ecological wisdom is likely only via some form of eco-centrism i.e. apprehending value not only in our human realm but in the more-than-human realm of nature as well.
Maxwell is to be praised for putting the task of seeking 'wisdom' on the agenda of universities again. As an introduction to Maxwell's project, and as an inspiring vision of a higher education worth fighting for in our era increasingly beset by marketization, Maxwell's book is a breath of fresh air. While the book is aimed at university staff and policy-makers, and although the style is occasionally repetitive, the book could usefully be read anyone interested in the future of higher education.
Simon Critchley (2001) Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nicholas Maxwell (2014) How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World: The Urgent Need for an Academic Revolution. Exeter: Societas.
Leemon McHenry (ed.) (2009). Science and the Pursuit of Wisdom: Studies in the Philosophy of Nicholas Maxwell. Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag.
Theodore Roszak (1999). The Gendered Atom: Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science. Berkeley: Conari Press.
© 2014 Jonathan Coope
Jonathan Coope. At the University of Nottingham, Dr Jonathan Coope is currently Chair of the 'Greening the Mind' Integrated Research Group at the Centre for Social Futures and Honorary Research Fellow in Humanities.